Snowshoeing in (or outside) Chamonix

Easy snowshoeing routes away from the Chamonix crowds

This article was first published on UK Hillwalking.

Every mountain sports enthusiast has been to Chamonix at least once. Conveniently located at the foot of Mont Blanc, Chamonix is a paradise for hikers, climbers, paragliders and skiers alike. It has so much to offer, and you will unlikely discover its full potential in a single holiday.

It is often seen as a place where the best athletes in each of these disciplines live or spend most of their time, and this could put some of us off, especially those who don’t feel up to these standards. But I’ll tell you a secret: you can have fun in Chamonix even if you’re not a favourite to win the next olympic medal.

Take snowshoeing, for example. It is sometimes disregarded and considered as a second rank winter activity, whereas in fact it is practiced by more and more people every year. One thing is true, though: Chamonix itself is not the best place for snowshoeing, everythin’s so steep! But you only need to drive a few minutes away from the valley to find some of the best snowshoeing routes in the Alps. Here’s a list of my favourites.

Rifugio Bonatti and great views on the south side of Mont Blanc

Chalets de Chailloux, Les Houches

Let’s start from the southern end of the Chamonix valley, by the small village of Les Houches. The Chalets de Chailloux are a couple of beautiful wooden chalets strategically built just a few hundred metres below the summit of the Aiguillette des Houches. From here, on a good day, you’re guaranteed to have one of the best views of the Mont Blanc massif in the whole of the Chamonix valley.

Starting in the hamlet of Le Bettey, just outside of Les Houches, this itinerary follows a good summer path through the woods, which then pops out onto the alpage just by the chalets. As an option, and depending on the avalanche forecast, the itinerary can be extended to reach the summit of the Aiguillette des Houches.

Elevation: 570m

Distance: 8km

Time: 5 hours round trip

Refuge de Loriaz, Vallorcine

Moving right to the other end of the valley, this is by far my favourite winter walk in Chamonix. Refuge de Loriaz is a lovely hut built on a gorgeous plateau, with amazing views on the Glacier du Tour and the Mont Blanc massif. The walk itself is slightly more demanding than the previous one, but still very pleasant. It again follows a good summer path but be aware, as this is a very popular ski touring route and you might come across some skiers flying down the path behind you.

The plateau where the hut is built is a great place to stop for lunch and enjoy the winter sun, maybe do a quick sketch or take a nap. An added bonus is that the hut is open all the way through the winter, a perfect spot for a hot chocolate, a slice of cake or a vin chaud.

Elevation: 700m

Distance: 8,5km

Time: 5/6 hours round trip

Refuge de Loriaz on a sunny winter day

Plateau de Bènés, Sallanches

A short drive away from Chamonix, where the mountains become less steep and more gentle, there’s a variety of snowshoe itineraries to fit all levels and abilities. The hike to the Plateau de Bènés starts from the village of Cordon, just above Sallanches. It follows a forest track through the woods until the Croix de Tête Noire viewpoint, a great spot to admire Mont Blanc in all its beauty. From here the itinerary continues along the wide and sunny plateau to some chalets, a great lunch spot and view point on the usual Mont Blanc massif and the Aravis.

This is an absolutely great walk for those who, like me, are big fans of high plateaux and open mountain spaces. A relatively low route, but an absolute classic in winter.

Elevation: 500m

Distance: 10km

Time: 4/5 hours round trip

Chalet de Mayèrs, Sallanches

This is probably one of the most famous snowshoeing routes in the area, and with good reason. Chalet de Mayèrs is located below the eastern flanks of the majestic Aravis mountains, just above the town of Sallanches. Unfortunately the hut is not open during the winter months, but it’s still a great destination for a relatively easy day out (the nearby Refuge de Tornieux, on the other hand, is open in winter).

The itinerary is never too steep, and meanders gently through the thick conifer forest until it reaches the hut. It’s a great route choice after a big snow storm, because powder is not only fun on skis!

Elevation: 550m

Distance: 8km

Time: 4 hours round trip

Tracks to the summit of Mont Truc

Mont Truc, Les Comtamines-Montjoie

Another of my favourites, and a great introduction to snowshoeing in and around Chamonix. Mont Truc is a small stand-alone summit right above the village of Les Contamines-Montjoie and the perfect destination for a quick snowshoeing day out. Starting from the hamlet of La Frasse, just outside the centre of Les Contamines, a wide track takes you through the forest and above the village. Once out of the forest, a few chalets make for a great picture stop, before continuing to the nearby summit.

This small peak is of course a great viewpoint on Mont Joly and the valley below, and some of you might recognise it as it is right on the itinerary of the Tour du Mont Blanc. A lovely place, and a rare opportunity to reach a summit on snowshoes around here.

Elevation: 550m

Distance: 6,5km

Time: 4 hours round trip

Rifugio Bonatti, Italy

Let’s now hop across the border and into the land of spaghetti and sunshine. Italy’s just a stone’s throw away from Chamonix, and Valle d’Aosta offers a great range of snowshoeing routes for those who want to escape the shade of the northern side of Mont Blanc for a day. Rifugio Bonatti is a great place to start. Conveniently located in the Italian Val Ferret, right in front of the Grandes Jorasses, this hut is one of the most famous stops on the Tour du Mont Blanc. It’s open in summer and winter and, needless to say, is a great place to taste some of the finest Italian alpine food.

The hike to reach Rifugio Bonatti in winter starts from the hamlet of Planpincieux, at the entrance of Val Ferret. From here on the roads become cross country ski tracks in winter, and it’s only possible to continue on foot. After walking all the way along the bottom of this beautiful valley, a narrow path starts climbing up towards the hut, with amazing views on the southern side of Mont Blanc and the valley floor.

The views here are breathtaking and the atmosphere is cosy and friendly. But I might be biased, I’m Italian after all.

Elevation: 500m

Distance: 13km

Time: 5 hours round trip

Hiking up to Alpqge de l’Arpille

Mont de l’Arpille, Switzerland

And after spending a day in Italy, why not spending one in Switzerland as well? The border between France and Switzerland is right at the upper end of the Chamonix valley, and getting to the start of this hike is way quicker than reaching some of the other areas mentioned until now, even though it’s in a different country.

Mont de l’Arpille is a classic snowshoeing day out in the Martigny area, and a great walk on a variety of different terrains. Starting from just above the hamlet of Ravoire, the track starts climbing quite steeply to the Alpage de l’Arpille, a mandatory break to take in the views and the surroundings. From here the track becomes much narrower and climbs thought spruce and arolla pine woods all the way to the summit plateau and to the summit itself, where an information plaque will help you identify the surrounding peaks.

Back to the car, a stop at the food truck is mandatory, to enjoy a vin Chaud at the end of the walk.

Elevation: 770m

Distance: 8km

Time: 5/6 hours round trip

Where to stay and when to go

The most convenient place to stay while exploring these areas is Chamonix itself. It allows easy access to both Italy and Switzerland, as well as the main road out of the valley, and has a range of facilities to suit everybody’s needs, from bars to restaurants, from supermarkets to outdoor and rental shops. Given its incredible popularity, finding accommodation in Chamonix might be tricky, especially during the high season, so be sure to book this well in advance. There’s something for everybody, both in terms of luxury and budget: from very fancy hotels to self-catering apartments and hostels.

But when’s the best time to visit Chamonix? As we all know very well by know, the amount of snow that falls every winter is becoming more and more unpredictable. Last winter, which is when I hiked most of these routes, I didn’t need snowshoes for a good part of them, and I was able to simply hike up on the compacted snow, maybe with the help of some micro spikes in certain places. However, the best time to go is between the end of December/start of January and the end of March. The busiest times are, of course, the Christmas holidays and the February mid term break, when lots of tourists pile up in an already busy valley. So I would advise to stay away from these times, if at all possible, to enjoy a little bit more space in the valley.

Chalets de Chailloux, below the Aiguillette des Houches

So here’s what I think are some of the best snowshoeing routes in, or just outside, the Chamonix valley. They can be enjoyed alone, with friends or with one of the many experienced and qualified guides that live and work in the valley.

Snowshoeing is one of the best ways to discover the mountains in winter, and an opportunity to explore those areas that are outside of the ski resorts and the more commercial areas. It’s easy, cheap and fun so try it this winter, try it in Chamonix.

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