Intermediate hiking and trekking in the French Alps: my three must-see places around Chamonix, world capital of mountaineering. In astonishing photos.
Among all the cities I’ve already visited, Chamonix and its valley is part of my top ten. Even if it’s an international capital of mountaineering, with more than 4.5 millions of visitors per year, Chamonix remains a genuine place, cultivating and transmitting the heritage of former first alpinists who opened up new hiking ways to the majestic summits of the French Alps. I fell in love with this authenticity and pioneering spirit.
As a photographer and mountain lover, I’m keen on waking up early in the morning (around 5am), when it’s still dark outside, and starting to hike at dawn, to see the sunrise on the peaks. Simple but magical moments that I try to catch with my camera.
No need to be a highly experienced alpinist to reach this alpine wonderland. Here are three of my must-see places around Chamonix: perfect for intermediate walkers, with no climbing experience required. Ideal to prepare for Mont-Blanc climbing, or famous UTMB (Ultra Trail Mont-Blanc), too.
Pormenaz Lake and Moëde-Anterne hut
Drive 25 minutes from Chamonix to Passy Plaine Joux Plateau, park your car and take a few minutes to contemplate the all-around view of the most iconic alpine summits, including not only the Mont-Blanc massif, but also the majestuous ridges of the Platé massif, facing it.
During summer this place is a famous spot for those who practice paragliding. I had my first flight with an instructor there. A wonderful sense of freedom.
Let’s hike then to Pormenaz Lake and Moëde-Anterne hut. There are at least 3 itineraries to reach this refuge. I tested all of them. My favourite one is the most authentic, excluding as far as possible cement road or 4×4. From Plaine-Joux, hike down to Lac Vert, using a forest path. Few meters before joining the lake, take the direction to Chatelet d’Ayeres.
All you need then is to hike pleasantly following the signs to Moëde-Anterne haven and Pormenaz lake. It’s a 3h 30 min walk, with about 8 kms and 750 m positive altitude change. First part crosses the woods, with its easy scents of nature so pleasant to me. But you’ll rapidly get out of the forest and follow a steep trail in the shrubs enabling you to enjoy the view.
The most curious and lucky ones will find a narrow path to a cave that was formerly used for mineral extraction…. In summer, once arrived at the lake, I often swim in its pure and refreshing water. Very pleasant.
The most courageous or motivated ones can also hike to the Pointe Noire de Pormenaz or reach the Anterne pass…
My favourite period to hike there, is at mid-October. Autumn colors and first snow falls add greatly to the beauty of the site.
Lac Blanc in the Aiguilles Rouges Massif
Lac Blanc is a classical must-see around Chamonix, in the Aiguilles Rouges Massif. You can get it departing from the city center, using a bus to Flégère cable-car station. Then, you have two options:
- First, you can take the cable-car and then follow the signs to Lac Blanc and hike 1h 45, with 570 m positive height difference. An easy way to see this place and enjoy the wonderful view of the Mont-Blanc Massif.
- Experienced trekkers can also follow the path starting from the car park of Flégère. A perfect 4 h walk with 1560 m positive altitude change to prepare the ascent of Mont-Blanc.
But I prefer starting from Les Montets mountain pass, 15 minutes away from Chamonix by car or bus. An intermediate 3h hiking of 4.5 kms and 970 m positive height difference. During summer, I recommend you to wake up early in the morning and begin to trek at around 7 am, for two main reasons:
- while walking, you’ll see the sunrise on Mont Blanc massif, a very pleasant moment
- the entire path is exposed to sunlight, and it can be tough to walk in the heat
The first part of this itinerary is quite steep and lasts between 1h and 1h30, depending on one’s endurance and experience. Take your time and don’t hesitate to make regular stops to drink, catch one’s breath and above all to appreciate the panorama and take pictures.
The second part is much easier. A false plateau leading to the numerous lakes of Aiguilles Rouges massif and most particularly to Chesery Lake. At that point, make a stop, remove your bag and behold the Mont-Blanc reflecting on the surface of its water. Those who started to hike early in the morning will certainly be part of the lucky ones to be nearly alone around the lake and to enjoy the calm of the place…
The third and last part of the walk, starting from Chesery lake is short and reasonably steep. Final effort of the walk before getting the Lac Blanc. Once arrived, almost all hikers sit and remain around the hut on the shore of the lake. I would advise to walk further around and find a quiet place to have lunch, snooze and enjoy the view.
On your way back to the car park, luckiest ones might have the chance to come across an alpine ibex feeding on shrubs.
Top of the Aiguille du Midi
Aiguille du Midi is a majestic and legendary place to visit in Chamonix. The panoramic view at its top is breathtaking and makes me feel free. The first time I went there, more than 15 years ago, I fell in love with those summits. At this moment, I precisely felt the same strong desire to explore these mountains as depicted by the former legendary alpinists I admire so much.
As formerly advised, check the weather the night before, wake up early in the morning and take the cable-car between 7h30 and 8h am to the top of the Aiguille. First section drives you above the woods to the Plan de l’Aiguille station, at the base of the gigantic peaks overlooking the massif. Second section is a meteoric ascent to the Aiguille and its facility over the Glacier des Pélerins.
Here we are… Welcome to Aiguille du Midi cable-car station, altitude 3,842 m. Make sure that the memory card of your camera is empty, and take as much time as you need to visit the entire place, and take pictures. Actually, the site is constructed on two rocky outcrops (North Piton, and Central Piton) linked together by an overhead footbridge. It counts no less than ten terraces including five with panoramic view on the alpine Massif and Chamonix Valley.
Enjoy, have fun, and take time to look the sunrise on the glaciers of the French Alps. It’s a magical moment.
Visitors will obviously come across hikers, as the Piton Central is a start to cross the famous and mythical Vallée Blanche. As a mountain lover, it would be a great pleasure to progress on the Glacier du Géant with a guide, following the trails of former alpine pioneers. A personal goal to achieve in the next few years.
After the visit and only once your memory card is entirely filled with extraordinary pics, you can take the cable-car back to Chamonix. But I prefer stopping at Plan de l’Aiguille and hike down to Chamonix.
Curious hikers in the French Alps could go first to the Lac Bleu, a simple 15 minutes’ walk to reach a nice and quiet altitude lake, where it’s pleasant to have lunch ant take few pictures (using a second memory card.
Starting from Plan de l’Aiguille cable-car station, I invite you to walk down to Refuge du Plan de l’Aiguille hut, 500 m below. Then there are at least three different ways to return to Chamonix. There’s no best way, each one is specific. Make your choice. My preference goes to the trail, going through Les grands bois woods, starting at the left side of the hut. Following that path, hikers will have a wonderful view on Les Bossons glacier during the entire hike… It’s a 2-hour walk, with about 1200 m negative height difference. No difficulties.
Once arrived in Chamonix, don’t forget to end this perfect day drinking a beer in one of the numerous pubs of its city centre. Chamonix’ microbrewery is reputed to produce fine end refreshing beer… Let’s taste…
I hope this article about the French Alps convinced you to come and visit Chamonix and surroundings. I hope you’ll love the place and the French Alps as much as I do.