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Trail Running in Chamonix: What are the Best Trails?

Andrew LyleOctober 22, 2018

While Chamonix may be best known for its daring mountain ascents and silky smooth ski runs, the burgeoning sport of trail running is rapidly growing in popularity in the iconic French valley.

Whether it’s the Alpine views, the challenging terrain or the cultural charm of hillside cafes, Chamonix-Mont Blanc is quickly becoming one of the top destinations for runners seeking out 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 dominate the landscape. 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 such as Argentiere and Les Houches provide charm at the other end of the spectrum.

A line of runners heading down the ridge. Photo: Mako10.

Trail running requires the challenges of terrain and wilderness, and when they blend effortlessly with the picturesque landscapes of the Chamonix Valley, they 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, 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.

Top Running Trails

 

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 few common features: they are fulfilling, satisfying and worth every drop of sweat.

Many guides offer flexible trips, where you choose the exact itinerary you want to take through the valley. This allows you to pick the circuit that best suits your ability level and preferences!

The Argentiere Circuit

 

The Argentiere Circuit is a short run that begins and ends in – you guessed it – Argentiere, a small village just northwest of Chamonix.

It just tops 8 kilometers (5 miles) with a meager 380-meter (1,250-foot) increase in elevation; a run that will acclimatize you for the Mont Blanc Massif and get you settled in for the next, more challenging run.

The impressive views from Argentiere. Photo: Patrick.

It passes rivers, crosses bridges, and looks both ways for trains, so you won’t miss a minute of the mountain village that is so symbolic of the Haute Savoie and Chamonix.

This route usually takes between an hour and an hour and a half to complete, mostly along footpaths.


In brief:

Difficulty: Beginner
Distance: 8 km (5 miles)
Elevation gain: 380m (1,250ft)
Starting point: Argentiere

Plan on heading to Argentiere this summer and want to get some running in? Check out this 1+ day trip from the village and this 3-day option too!


The Chamonix Loop

 

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 (5 mile) 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.


In brief:

Difficulty: Beginner
Distance: 8 km (5 mile)
Elevation gain: 356m (1,168ft)
Starting point: Chamonix


The Vallorcine Circuit

 

The Vallorcine Circuit is another enchanting run through a notable Alpine village, one 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.

The stone paths of Vallorcine. Photo: Jacques.

Expect almost 850 meters (2,790 feet) in elevation gain and 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) to bring it home.


In brief:

Difficulty: Beginner
Distance: 12 km (7.5 miles)
Elevation gain: 850m (2,790ft)
Starting point: Vallorcines


The Traverse La Joux

 

The Traverse La Joux is a bona fide delight – roughly two hours with 800 meters (2,625 feet) in climbing trails.

It doesn’t even crest 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) 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.


In brief:

Difficulty: Intermediate
Distance: 9 km (5.6 miles)
Elevation gain: 800m (2,645ft)
Starting point: La Joux


The Montroc Circuit

 

One of the more daunting trails that has everything but the kitchen sink is the Montroc Circuit.

Mountain magic is alive in the architectural integrity of the passing buildings, including the red-shuttered building at the Col de Balme (2,191 m/7,188 ft).

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 (11.8 miles) endeavor gives you practical experience. The more-than-1,400-meter (4,600-foot) increase in elevation will develop the body and the mind.


In brief:

Difficulty: Intermediate
Distance: 19 km (11.8 miles)
Elevation gain: 1,400m (4,600ft)
Starting point: Montroc


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.

Races

 

The best running trails of the region have gained notoriety due to the Tour du Mont Blanc, a loop 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 takes the TMB to the next level.

Picture perfect backdrop of the Alps. Photo: James.

The UTMB, as it is known, is the marquis trail running event of the year in Chamonix and takes place at the end of a busy calendar of races that begin in June.

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.

Mont Blanc Marathon

 

The Mont Blanc Marathon, in June, is the perfect way to kick off the summer and get the valley’s blood pumping for the rest of the Chamonix racing season.

Generally operating on a loop, the race heads from Chamonix through Courmayeur and Champex before returning back to the French valley. Along the way, expect indulgent the views of the Mont Blanc massif and its majestic neighboring peaks.

Some variations of the marathon take creative license and feature specific aspects of the Italian Aosta Valley or the Swiss countryside.


In brief:

Difficulty: Advanced
Distance: 42.2 km (26.2 miles)
Elevation gain: 2,730m (8,960ft)
Starting point: Chamonix
Time of year: Last Friday in June

Need some help preparing for the marathon? Try out this intense 3-day, 80-kilometer Mont Blanc Marathon training course in Chamonix!


Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc

 

The apex run of the series is its namesake, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB).

Beginning in the final week of August and Lasting through the first week of September, runners flock – in growing numbers each year – to take part in the extreme event and circle Mont Blanc at speed.

It is the ultimate single-stage race to test a runner’s strength and endurance. The event covers about 171 kilometers (106 miles) in distance, but the true test of mettle comes from the near-10,040-meters  (32,940-feet) of 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 brief:

Difficulty: Very advanced
Distance: 171 km (106 miles)
Elevation gain: 10,040m (32,940ft)
Starting point: Chamonix
Time of year: Last week of August

Plan on checking this intense race off your running bucket list? Book a week-long UTMB training course to get in shape and learn the terrain!


Courmayeur – Champex – Chamonix

 

In 2006, the week-long festival culminating in the UTMB cemented its hold on Chamonix with the Courmayeur – Champex – Chamonix (CCC).

The circuit of the race is just over 100 kilometers (60 miles) with a challenging 6,100-meter (20,000-foot) gain in elevation.

Beautiful bridge over a stream in the valley. Photo: Mako10.

The race, which serves as an appetizer for the main event, is designed to give participants a slightly less ambitious experience running along the Tour du Mont Blanc trail.

Regardless, it still requires rigorous training and has tight qualifying standards.


In brief:

Difficulty: Advanced
Distance: 100 km (60 miles)
Elevation gain: 6,100m (20,000ft)
Starting point: Courmayeur, Italy
Time of year: Last week of August

Plan on trying out this race? Get in a great warm up run on this 3-day course running through Courmayeur, Champex and Chamonix!


Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie

 

The success of the CCC gave way to the Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie (TDS), in 2009.

This 121-kilometer (75-mile) 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 (24,000-foot) increase in elevation and has a duration of 14.5 to 34 hours.


In brief:

Difficulty: Advanced
Distance: 121 km. (75 miles)
Elevation gain: 7,300m (24,000ft)
Starting point: Courmayeur, Italy
Time of year:  Last week of August


Orsieres – Champex – Chamonix

 

For speed freaks who want to finish the competition without worrying about a night on the mountain, the Orsieres – Champex – Chamonix (OCC) is a slightly shorter alternative to the TDS.

The race is a more manageable 56-kilometer (35-mile) route and a modest 3,460 meter (11,350-foot) 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.


In brief:

Difficulty: Advanced
Distance: 56 km (35 miles)
Elevation gain: 3,460m (11,350ft)
Starting point: Orsieres, Switzerland
Time of year:  Last week of August

Want to prepare for the Orseires – Champex – Chamonix race? Then check out this 2-day training course from the idyllic Swiss town!


Petite Trotte a Leon

 

The UTMB line-up of events also includes the Petite Trotte a Leon (PTL), which involves an astounding 300-kilometer (190-mile) trek split between two or three participants.

The 25,000 meters (82,000 feet) 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 too.


In brief:

Difficulty: Very advanced
Distance: 300 km (190 miles)
Elevation gain: 25,000m (82,000ft)
Starting point: Chamonix
Time of year: Last week of August


When Is the Best Time to Go?

 

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.

It is always better to run with a group. Photo: James.

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.

Average Cost of a Guided Trail Running Program

 

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, possibly more. These generally include the price of accommodation, meals and luggage transfers.

A day or two of trail running alongside a certified guide can start at €40 per diem, depending on how many friends come along for the ride – or run.

Cheering on a runner in the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. Photo: Simona.

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 for running with a private guide.

How to Get There

The easiest and fastest way to get to Chamonix is to fly into the nearby Geneva International Airport (GVA), in Switzerland.

From here, it is easiest to rent a car and make the hour-long drive to Chamonix. However, it is also possible to take a combination of buses and trains directly from the airport.

Away from GVA, it is also possible to fly into the airport in the Lyon-Saint-Exupéry Airport (LYS) or Chambéry-Savoie Airport (CMF). From both of these, you can either rent a car and drive west to Chamonix or also take a combination of buses and trains to get there.

An uphill climb in Courmayeur. Photo: ActiveSteve.

In general, traveling by bus will be the cheapest, as well as one of the most scenic, ways to get from any airport to Chamonix.

How to Prepare

 

As with heading out on any type of outdoor adventure, preparation is key to a successful trail running trip to Chamonix. Ensuring that you have the proper equipment and are physically prepared is will make all the difference.

In terms of physical preparation, trail running is different from road running. Uneven surfaces mean that core strength is even more important. Prior to heading on a trail running adventure, be sure to do core strengthening exercises.

Another key tip trail running guides also give is to train with a water bladder and day pack. After all, you’ll be making all the aforementioned ascents and descents with all of your own gear, so training with the extra weight won’t go amiss.

Equipment

 

Bringing the proper equipment and gear along on your run will help make the adventure as fun, safe and successful as possible. Remember to always check with your guide to see what they recommend you bring on the trip.

Below is a basic list of trail running gear recommended by most guides:

  • Biodegradable toilet paper
  • Headlamp
  • Light backpack
  • Personal first aid kit, including moleskins and blister plasters
  • Running poles
  • Sun hat or headband
  • Sunglasses, sun cream and lip balm
  • Trail running shoes (already worn)
  • Waterproof jacket and long sleeve fleece
  • 1.5 liter water bottle or bladder

Where to Stay

 

If you need accommodation in Chamonix, here are some places recommended by local mountain guides Isabelle and Robin:

There is no place on Earth quite like Chamonix. Photo: Damien.

Grab your shoes, load up on carbs, and take off on the adventure of a lifetime to the Mont Blanc massif and run through the unbeatable scenery of Chamonix!

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