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Peak Transfer | Trail Running in Chamonix – Top Trails & Tips
17th August 2015

Trail Running in Chamonix – Top Trails & Tips

Trail running is continuing to grow in popularity all over the world. And its not just the ‘crazy’ super-fit bionic machine-type men and women that actually enjoy what many would call sadistic torture. In fact, if anything like myself there is something immensely satisfying, natural and liberating about hitting a trail. Not only to keep my mind off how out of breath I am because I’m scanning the trail ahead for rebellious rocks and treacherous tree roots to determine my next foot placement, but also the fact that on each and every run nature seems to surprise me in some way or another.

So why Chamonix?

If hosting two of the most prestigious trail running events in the world  (UTMB and the Marathon du Mont Blanc) wasn’t enough to inspire you to get yourself and your beloved trail shoes on the next flight to Geneva, perhaps the 18 way-marked routes between Servoz and Vallorcine dedicated purely to trail runners of varying lengths amongst the valleys 500km of trails might persuade you. There are not many other places in the world that have embraced trail running quite like the Chamonix Valley. It has everything on offer from a short 10km plod along the valley floor to 100 mile plus ultras or multiple day running tours such as the Tour du Mont Blanc and Bernese Oberland/ Haut tours.

The trails provide varied terrain and scenery, whether its a exposed rocky high alpine paths with spectacular views of surrounding summits and glaciers, winding balcony trails traversing forests streams or just a simplistic valley floor run following the natural course of the glacial l’Arve river. There is a reason why many of the best elite european trail runners such as Killian Journet, Emelie Foresberg and Anna Frost choose to be based in and around the Chamonix valley.Mont Blanc Chamonix Trail Running with Peak Transfer
Trail running being so embedded in the valley has meant that there are numerous materials and package holiday providers meeting the specific needs of the keenest of trail running enthusiasts in the valley. These range from fully guided, all inclusive ‘trail running camps, fully guided trail running tours or for those wanting to ‘DIY’ self guided tours or maintained trails available. For those of you wanting to make your own bespoke running itinerary the valley has it’s very own dedicated trail running site with descriptions, maps and profiles as well as transportation access of the 18 dedicated trail running routes and much more at Vallée du Trail.

Peak Transfers Top 5 Trails

Quite a few members of the Peak Transfer Team love to hit the trails in and around Chamonix on a regular basis when we are out of the office, I’m not going to lie sometimes when we re in the office too! So we have decided to share our favourite ‘go-to’ trails when in Chamonix.

1) John’s Top Trail – Plan de l’Aiguille

One of my favourite trails in the Chamonix valley starts off in the Grepon car park just below the famous Chamonix ski jump. From here you take the trail that weaves all the way up to Plan de l’Aiguille it’s a climb of around 1250m+ and takes in some beautiful forest lined sections & then as you climb higher and break the treeline you get amazing views of both the Valley of Chamonix and the Mont Blanc massive.
After catching your breath at the mid station then take the balcony that traverses across to Montenvers, it’s a slight downward trail with epic views all the way across and the slight gravity assist makes you feel like you are running like a rockstar! When you reach Montenvers you drop left down towards Les Planards. It is a fairly rocky technical descent especially the top section, you cross the Montenvers tram rail line twice during the descent and usually get to see the train making its way up or down the mountainside. Once you hit Planards its just back down to the valley floor and back to Grepon car park.

The whole route usually takes me between 3hr-3h20 to cover +/- 1250m and around 16km distance, for me has a little of everything in it; a decent climb, great runnable traverse and a technical descent, all in all guaranteed to give even the fittest legs a good workout.
The views from the balcony are some of the best to found in the valley, best to go early in the morning or later evening in high season if you want the place to yourself as it’s also popular for hikers to walk the traverse.l'Aiguilette arete with Peak Transfer

2) Kaz’s Top Trail – Aiguillette des Houches

Kaz is probably the keenest trail runner among the lot of us having competed in numerous ultra trail events across Europe and soon to be crossing the pond on her quest for new ultra trail running challenges in America later this year. But before that she will be competing in this years TDS as part of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc Week.

“One of my favourite trails is from Gaillands to Bel Lachat, taking the traverse to Aiguillette des Houches (2285m) and descend via Chalets de Chailloux then Merlet back to Gaillands. Starting at the beautiful Lac Galliand on the outskirts of Chamonix Centre you will find the trail that starts to climb through the woods close to the rock climbing walls. It is a challenging ascent with tight switch backs. Beyond the tree line it is a quick and smooth climb to Refuge Bel Lachat (2152m). From here the traverse gradually climbs towards Aiguillette des Houches (2285m). The route is marked by numerous cairns which, in misty weather, provide comfort that you know you are on the right trail.Aiguillete des Houches Chamonix misty trail running
At the Aiguillette des Houches there is a cheeky descent along an arete which although is techical is great fun. This takes you onto a more grassy plateau as the trail sweeps back round to Chalet de Chailloux (1912 m) and then down via Le Parc du Merlet back into the trees on a rolling, fast trail that drops back down to Gaillands.

The trail is over 16km with over 1500m+ of ascent depending on exact route, crossing varied terrain from your technical exposed unmaintained rocky trails to enjoyable sheltered maintained trails. As soon as you emerge out of the treeline the views of the Le Bosson glacier and Mont Blanc itself are truly spectacular and you may wish to just pause for a moment and take it all in, especially around Refuge Bel Lachat (2152m).Refuge Bel Lachat view in Chamonix

3) Kirstie’s Top Trail – Sentier du Val Montjoie

I live just outside the Chamonix Valley in Saint Gervais Les Bains (l’Arve Valley) and I find trail life a little bit more gentle in terms of steepness over here so you can really get your teeth stuck into a trail enabling me to run further and faster than the steeper trails in the Chamonix Valley. But don’t worry if you are staying in Chamonix its either a quick 15-minute car journey or you can just hop on the Mont Blanc Express to the La Fayet Saint Gervais Station and start your run from there!

My ‘go to’ trail is from La Fayet following a similar route to le Sentier du Val Montjoie following the Le Bont Nant River upstream up through the valley to La Gorge, Les Contamines. Although not an exposed route in the slightest it can still offer spectacular views of the Mont Blanc Massif, Aiguille de Bionnassay, Domes de Miage and Mont Joly and is accessible all year round. You experience various landscapes from waterfalls, gorges and footbridges to open meadows and secluded forests. As well as cultural farms and traditional villages. What i like about the trail is that it is so quiet in terms of footfall so you really can feel close to nature around you and ‘loose yourself’ in the mountain side forest.

The trail starts in Le Parc Thermal where the Spa towns famous natural springs are located in Le Fayet (about 1 minutes walk from the train station). Walking through the park you can take any of the signed trails up to Saint Gervais. I definitely recommend crossing over the Le Bon Nant river by the thermal spa so that you get to see the powerful waterfalls from the 52m high Passerelle des Thermes” footbridge on your way up to Saint Gervais. After just 200m of ascent you quickly pass through Saint Gervais village straight onto the Sentier du Val Montjoie at the Ice rink car park. The Sentier du Val Montjoie then undulates through the wooded mountain side negotiating tree roots and exposed rocks in the otherwise hard packed trails. My favourite part of the route is probably that it often drops back to the river and takes on a rather Narnia like atmosphere, especially in the winter!

Le Sentier du Val Montjoie from Saint Gervais river trail
The path is approximately 16km out and 800m of ascent, you can either run back or grab the free shuttle bus back to Saint Gervais. There are also higher mountain trail options up to Le Bettex (1400m) and St-Nicolas de Veroce. The reward being that you get to smooth achy tired legs in the Thermal Spa or Ice Spa when you finish… Perfect!

4) Chris Top Trail – Petit Balcon Sud

If anyone new to the valley asks me about trail running I would always recommend the Petit Balcon Sud. Its a perfect first chamonix trail not just because its a gentle introduction to chamonix trails being of the more undulating variety but more importantly it has a great view of the valley letting you visually see the surrounding landscape so you can get to know major landmarks quicker to help get a better perspective for future route choice/ planning. You can climb up to the Petite Balcon from pretty much anywhere in Chamonix (on the Brevent side of the Valley) but i would recommend jumping on from either Galliands or from the bottom of the Brevent Gondola.

From Galliands its approximately 21kms to Argentiere, you have an initial steep climb up to the Petit Balcon, but once you reach it the trail becomes more undulating before dropping down to the l’Arve river by Les Tines. Continuing along the river bank for a while through a beautiful wooden section and multiple streams before heading back up the mountainside past the Mont Blanc Express Train Tracks until you get to Argentiere. From here you can either run back to Chamonix town centre via Praz de Paradiz and Les Praz or you can jump on the bus straight back to town.

5) VKM – Vertical Kiliometer – Planpraz

Does exactly what it says on the tin. From Chamonix town centre you gain 1km of vertical ascent over 3.8km up to the airy heights of Planpraz (2000m). I wouldn’t say this is particularly anyones favourite in the Peak Transfer Team (certainly not mine) but its almost a right of passage in the trail running community of Chamonix! Be prepared for jelly legs, grunts and growns and a long unforgiving aided section (scramble) right when you need it at the very top of the climb. This particular route is a fundamental date in the European Sky Running Championships as part of the Mont Blanc Marathon Weekend held here in June every year and should not be missed. At least when you get to the top you have the choice of getting the gondola back down to Chamonix or a rightfully earned bear whilst catching your breath with Mont Blanc and Brevent as fitting backdrops whilst in the cafe or restaurant at the top.Anna Frost Vertical KM Chamonix

Tips for Trail Running in the Alps

  • Take a map with you! I know this may sound strange to many of you that are used to English Countryside trails but it is so easily lost up there. Chamonix book shops sell small double sided maps that are quite handy when running the local trails.
  • Stay hydrated – you will undoubtedly be having that water vs weight debate. Really research water opportunities on your route some popular trails have potable water fountains where you can refill!
  • Take more food than you think you might need.
  • Pace yourself – the mountains will punish you if you go out to fast!
  • Take all the basics appropriate to how long, remote and exposed the route you plan to take on. I never go on a long trail run in the mountains without: first aid kit, foil blanket, mobile phone (waterproofed), map, buff, sun hat, head torch, hydration bladder, waterproof/windbreaker, jacket, gloves, emergency cash and bank card, copy of insurance/ European Health Insurance Card.
  • Let someone know the details of where you plan to run and estimated time of completion.
  • Make sure you take the time to enjoy yourself in the mountains and perhaps a few photo pit stops on route!
  • Check the weather conditions before you head out. Especially if going up high. For more detailed information regarding staying safe in the mountains take a look at our staying safe in the mountains article.

So don’t just read about it, come and experience these iconic mountain trails and unique terrain that spread from France into Italy and Switzerland.

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