While Chamonix may be best known for its daring mountain ascents and silky smooth ski runs, the burgeoning sport of trail running might just be the most popular sport in the iconic French valley. Whether it’s the Alpine views, the challenging terrain, or the cultural charm of hillside cafes, this is quickly becoming one of the top destinations for runners who seek the ultimate – and literal – high.
Taking Chamonix at face value, you would be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful landscape to stroll, jog, or run through. Mountain meadows, high valleys, and Alpine passes are a dime a dozen, but each one possesses a picturesque quality that can stop you in your tracks and compromise your pace. Mont Blanc is the symbol of the region and an obvious attraction, but villages like Argentiere and Les Houches provide charm at the other end of the spectrum.
Trail running requires the challenges of terrain and wilderness, and when they blend effortlessly with picturesque landscapes like the Chamonix Valley, the can develop into the epitome of the sport. This is why Chamonix is known as “the Valley of Trail Running.” For one, running in Chamonix includes hut-to-hut routes that you always thought were meant for ski touring only. In fact, trail running on the impeccable mountainside has seduced more trail runners than skiers and mountaineers.
The region exudes culture, and it’s impossible to avoid it when running through century-old towns trapped in time. Chamonix has taken this enriching local history and combined it with the adventure-thirsty trail enthusiasts to deliver one of the world’s premiere locations for a sport defined by its terrain. Let’s take a peek at what some of the exhilarating, challenging, and all-around unforgettable trail runs that will make you drop everything and hit the hills and hamlets of an Alpine paradise.
Chamonix is a vast expanse of geological and natural wonders. For this reason, you can find runs of every shape, size, and duration. The best routes follow guidelines loosely, but all share a common feature: they are fulfilling, satisfying, and worth every drop of sweat.
The Argentiere Circuit is a short run that begins and ends in – you guessed it – Argentiere. It just tops eight kilometers with a meager 380-meter increase in elevation, a run that will acclimatize you to the Mont Blanc Massif and get you settled in for the next, more challenging run. It passes rivers, crosses bridges, and looks both ways for trains, so you won’t miss a minute of the mountain village that symbolizes the Haute Savoie and Chamonix. This route usually takes between an hour and an hour and a half to complete, mostly along footpaths.
A similar Chamonix Loop follows a trail through Buvette de la Floria Les Praz before returning to its starting point. It is also an 8 kilometer affair with (relatively) unimpressive elevation gains. Dip below the cable car of La Flegere and hop down the Promenade de L’Arve for a stunning warm-up run.
Intermediate runs let you stretch the legs and see what you can do. The Vallorcine Circuit is another enchanting run through a notable Alpine village, once that enjoys a challenge and a bit of technical grace. A two or three hour jaunt, runners get to see the Vallon de Berard and its phenomenal cascading waterfall. Other route features include the Alpine meadows with the Chalets de Loriaz and delightful bridges that lead to lush forests and unforgettable trail runs. Expect almost 850 meters in elevation gain and 12 kilometers to bring it home.
The Traverse La Joux is a bona fide delight – roughly two hours with 800 meters in climbing trails. It doesn’t even crest nine kilometers in distance, so you can focus on incline work without running yourself ragged. The most enticing part of this route is emerging from the forest and facing the spires and peaks of Mont Blanc and Chamonix.
One of the more daunting trails that has everything but the kitchen sink is the Montroc Circuit. Mountain magic is alive in the architecture integrity of the passing buildings, including the red-shuttered building at the Col de Balme (2,191m). You will have long lines through fields and flats, but don’t get too comfortable until you climb the shale footpath towards Le Tour. The circuit even covers a bit of the Mont Blanc Marathon route, so your 19-kilometer endeavor gives you practical experience. The more-than-1,400-meter increase in elevation will develop the body and the mind.
While these routes are just a few of the popular options along the network of mountain trails in Chamonix, it should give you a base from which to lace up and conquer. When it comes to increasing the profile of the valley as a whole, the race culture of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc may have a bit to do with that, too…
The best running trails of the region have gained notoriety due to the Tour du Mont Blanc, a hiking trail that usually take between seven and nine days to complete… when hiking. But for speed demons in search of thin air adventures, the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc and its umbrella of events are the pinnacle of terrific trail runs.
During the final week of August and the first week of September, runners have been flocking with an increased intensity to Chamonix for the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and to circle Mont Blanc at speed. With events of every shape and size, and some that change scope and direction each year, the popularity of trail running seems to be buoyed by the titanic competition that spans three countries – France, Italy, and Switzerland. The Mont Blanc Marathon in June starts the summer is a perfect way to kick off the summer and get the valley’s blood pumping for the rest of the Chamonix races.
Generally operating on a loop, the race heads from Chamonix through Courmayeur and Champex and returns back to the French valley, indulging in the views and paths of Mont Blanc and its majestic neighbors the entire way. Some races take creative license and feature specific aspects of the Italian Aosta Valley or the Swiss countryside.
The apex run of the series is its namesake, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB). It is the ultimate single-stage race to test a runner’s strength and endurance. The event covers about 171 kilometers in distance, but the true test of mettle comes from the near-10,040-meter elevation gain. It is common for runners to compete in this grueling competition from anywhere between 20 hours and 46 hours, with many not even finishing the race. This includes two nights of running before crossing the finish line.
In 2006, the week-long festival of trail running cemented its hold on Chamonix with the Courmayeur – Champex – Chamonix (CCC), a race just over 100 kilometers and a challenging 6,100-meter-gain in elevation. Designed to give participants a slightly less ambitious experience running along the Tour du Mont Blanc trail, it still requires rigorous training and tight qualifying standards.
The success of the CCC gave way to the Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie (TDS) in 2009. This 121-kilometer run takes on the Savoie and Aosta Valleys for a different view of the classic Mont Blanc route. It still has a significant 7,300 meter increase in elevation and has a duration of 14.5 to 34 hours.
For speed freaks who want to finish the competition without worrying about a night on the mountain, the Orsieres – Champex – Chamonix (OCC) has a more manageable 56-kilometer route and a modest (HA!) 3,460 meter elevation gain. While this event is certainly no walk in the park, it does round out the available routes and provide a suitable race for those ready for low mileage.
The UTMB line-up of events also includes the Petite Trotte a Leon (PTL), which involves an astounding 300 kilometer trek split between two or three participants. The 25,000 meters of elevation gain is a one-of-a-kind way to tour the Mont Blanc Massif, and the non-competitive atmosphere allows teams to immerse themselves in the culture of the Alpine trails.
With warmer temperatures sunnier skies, the summer lends itself to the most ideal conditions for a run along the trail. Late spring and early autumn might be slightly better to avoid crowds and event congestion. Alpine meadows in bloom and the autumnal twilight on the mountainside can be considered an added bonus of bookending your trip around the summer.
If you are participating in the UTMB, you should expect to be ready to run in late August and early September and may want to consider a training regimen within a couple months of race day. You should check out some of the associated programs, like this six-day UTMB preparation program or this 80km Mont Blanc race program, to get ready for the main event of Chamonix trail running towards the close of summer.
The price of a guided program doesn’t necessarily cost you an arm or, most importantly, a leg. Depending on your chosen running route and training intensity, you can make an economic decision that best suits your needs and experience.
Multi-day programs, such as a classic six-day Haute Route course from Chamonix to Zermatt, can run you anywhere from 500 to 1,000 euros, possibly more. A day or two of trail running alongside a certified guide can start at 40 euros a day, depending on how many friends come along for the ride – or run.
Pay attention to the inclusions in programs to find out which suits you best. Some will offer drinks and supplements, while others cover a basic guiding fee only. The number of people who join you on the trail may have a heavy impact on the price you pay to hit the ground running.
Chamonix, while seemingly a remote “Shangri-La” in the clouds above France, knows how to take you to the top. Flying into Geneva (Switzerland) is probably the fastest way to get there, though Chambery and Lyon are both within a couple hours or so of the valley. Turin is an option if you are approaching from Italy and want to make a pit stop at Gran Paradiso or the Aosta Valley.
The network of roads, trains, and cable cars also provide seamless transitions through the valley. Trains provide a relaxed and pleasant way to reach Chamonix, also traveling from Lyon and culminating in the Mont Blanc Express. You could theoretically travel all the way from London via train!
Buses will be the most reliable and are also required for any air travel. Along with hired and private cars, they will be your best bet for fundamental transportation into and out of Chamonix.
Grab your shoes, load up on carbs, and take off on the adventure of a lifetime in the Mont Blanc Massif of the Alps and run through the unbeatable scenery of Chamonix!
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