The site of the first Winter Olympics in1924, Chamonix, France, is renowned for its challenging Alpine skiing and the longest ski run in Europe– Vallee Blanche, a challenging 12 mile trail. But Chamonix has just as much to offer nature lovers in the summer and is particularly appealing to budget travelers looking for seasonal deals.
The Alps are one of the few places in Europe where summer is considered off-season and the prices for lodging are half as much as they tend to be during the more popular ski season. My husband and I stayed in Les Houches, a small town just outside Chamonix, in a studio chalet apartment with a glorious balcony facing Mont Blanc for 60 euros a night the last week in June. As budget travelers we generally find it much more economical to rent an apartment with a kitchen ( using the website homeaway.com) rather than eating out at restaurants. Our apartment at Chalets Les Grand Balcon in Les Houches had a charming well-equipped kitchen where we made locally inspired dishes like fondue and polenta with locally produced Tomme cheese.
We ate our meals on the balcony of our rental chalet, complete with a five star atmosphere–the breathtaking view of snow capped Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe at 15,531 feet.
The town of Chamonix offers excellent shopping and ubiquitous views of the snow covered Mont Blanc mountain range, so it feels you are experiencing the best of both worlds– fair summer weather combined with wintry alpine views.
Photos by Emily Benson
Hiking is outstanding and various in Chamonix, particularly in June when spring windflowers still abound.
There are 215 miles of hiking trails and over 150 different itineraries to choose from depending on your level.
Some of the best hikes are in nature reserves, protected areas full of lakes, glacier remnants, flora and fauna. In these reserves you’re more likely to catch a glimpse of local wildlife such as chamois, marmots deer, or extremely rarely, mountain goats high up in the rocky cliffs.
At Aguilles Rouges, we were unusually lucky to encounter a group of male mountain goats (bouquetin) who had ambled down from their high post in the mountains to lick something off the walls of the visitor center we suspected park rangers had put out to increase the visibility of this elusive creature. A male alone might have presented a threat, but in a group, especially diverted by a candy binge, we felt safe enough to approach for a few pictures.
At Animal Parc Merlet in Les Houches, we had the opportunity to mingle with chamois and deer moving freely about the mountains in a preserved area where typical mountain activities like camping or picnicking are forbidden.
But unless you’re a thrill seeker or incredibly experienced mountaineer, it’s unlikely you’ll be willing or able to hike to the highest point of Mont Blanc.
Nonetheless, you don’t have to be deprived of the sublime experience of seeing the world from those deathdefying heights. There is a spectacular cable car to take you up to Aguille du Midi
that leaves from the center of Chamonix and delivers you onto a rock terrace, a precarious 12,604 feet high, the closest you can get to Mont Blanc without climbing.
My husband and I took the cable car up to Aguille du Midi one morning in late June. After a dauntingly steep journey we stepped out of the car onto the panoramic viewing platform, where we were surrounded by sweeping views of the Swiss, French, and Italian Alps. We also had a view of the Matterhorn, visible only on clear days.
As much as I tried to focus on the specifics, I was mesmerized by the sublimity of the overall experience, feeling virtually suspended ( if it weren’t for a simple wooden platform) over 12000 feet up in the air. We were at the same level as the clouds, but without the protective barrier of an airplane or the diversion of in-flight movies and cocktail peanuts, to make me oblivious of the heights to which we’d ascended.
The experience of being dwarfed by nature was so profound it made viewing the grand canyon feel like watching a cartoon. The mountains were hard jagged rock and covered in ice. Black crows swooped to and fro against a stark white background of snow and ice. The air was cold, in the low 50s, and hikers down below seemed like foolish ants entirely at the mercy of the sinister, yet awe-inspiring, mountain peaks.
After an hour or two of taking in our magnificent surroundings, we ducked inside the cafeteria next to 3842– one of the highest restaurants in the world. In the adjacent less expensive cafeteria we enjoyed a similarly stunning panoramic view along with cappuccinos to warm us after a chilly morning taking in Mont Blanc from dizzying and existentially threatening heights.
On the way back down, rather than go all the way to Chamonix, we decided to get off halfway at Plan de l’Aguille, and hike to the Montenvers Train Station to the edge of Mer de Glacé where we’d take the old fashioned cogwheel train back to Chamonix. Since we’d descended more than 5000 feet, the weather had warmed up to the high 60s, ideal for our four mile hike through the alps to Montenvers. The sign actually said it would take 2 hours, but beware, the locals are in astonishingly good shape, and tend to jog the trails, ( trail running is a popular recreation in the Alps). But we preferred to take our time, communing with the donkeys that greeted us at the start of the hike, then stopping at various alpine streams to cup the fresh cold water in our hands and quench our thirst amongst the rolling green mountains carpeted in pink and yellow wildflowers.
If you like to stop and take in the view or take photos, allow four hours for the hike. Make sure you leave enough time to catch the last train down to Chamonix from Montenvers around 5:30 pm. It is a difficult walk if you planned to take the train!